New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

WARNEY v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2008-031-046, Claim No. 114826, Motion No. M-74681


Synopsis


Claim for unjust conviction must be dismissed as Claimant’s own conduct “caused or brought about his conviction.” Claim dismissed

Case Information

UID:
2008-031-046
Claimant(s):
DOUGLAS WARNEY
Claimant short name:
WARNEY
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
114826
Motion number(s):
M-74681
Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
RENÉE FORGENSI MINARIK
Claimant’s attorney:
COCHRAN NEUFELD & SCHECK, LLPBY: PETER J. NEUFELD, ESQ., DEBORAH L. CORNWALL, ESQ. and MONICA R. SHAH, ESQ.
Defendant’s attorney:
HON. ANDREW M CUOMO
New York State Attorney General
BY: THOMAS G. RAMSAY, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
September 26, 2008
City:
Rochester
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

.
Decision

The following papers, numbered 1 to 6, were read on motion by Defendant for an order dismissing the claim:
1. Defendant’s Notice of Motion, filed March 17, 2008;
2. Affirmation of Thomas G. Ramsay, Esq., dated March 13, 2008, with attached exhibits;
3. Claimant’s Brief in Opposition, dated April 11, 2008;
4. Reply Affirmation of Thomas G. Ramsay, Esq., dated April 21, 2008;
5. Affirmation “Correcting Reply Affirmation” of Thomas G. Ramsay, dated April 22, 2008;
6. Correspondence from Claimant’s counsel, dated April 18, 2008, with attachment.On January 3, 1996, William Beason was found stabbed to death in his home on Chili Avenue in the City of Rochester, New York. On January 4, 1996, Claimant Douglas Warney contacted the Rochester Police Department and indicated that he had information for the Police. Rochester Police Officer Sandra Adams was dispatched to Claimant’s address and interviewed Claimant that evening in his home. At that time, Claimant indicated that he was familiar with the victim and that he had been to the victim’s apartment before. He also stated that he knew the murderer. During that and subsequent interviews with police, Claimant lied to police and attempted to frame his cousin, Brian Szymkowski, for the murder. He indicated that he had been at the victim’s house shoveling snow when his cousin, who was owed money by the victim, broke down the door and entered the house. Claimant said that he heard screaming but did not enter the house. Later, Claimant indicated that he had entered the house. Upon further questioning, he admitted that he had assisted his cousin in the murder of Mr. Beason. Finally, he admitted that he had murdered Mr. Beason on his own and that his cousin was not involved.

Claimant signed a detailed, written confession containing what Claimant insists are facts that only the police and the true perpetrator could possibly have known. Things such as an awareness of the layout and furnishing of the interior of the victim’s house and knowledge of what the victim was cooking at the time he was murdered. In his confession, Claimant also indicated that he had stabbed the victim many times and that he himself had been cut in the struggle and that he cleaned the knife off with tissue paper before leaving.

After Claimant had given this confession, and while he was being booked, an officer uninvolved with the investigation of the murder, one Corporal Dreeson, saw Claimant and asked how he was doing. Without any direct questioning and unprompted, Claimant declared “not good . . . I got a body.”

Claimant was tried for the murder of Willaim Beason and, on February 12, 1997, was found guilty of two counts of murder in the second degree. On February 27, 1997, he was sentenced to two concurrent terms of imprisonment of 25 years to life. Mr. Warney served more than nine years of this sentence when, in May of 2006, DNA evidence ruled Claimant out as the perpetrator and incriminated another individual. This individual, Eldred Johnson, confessed to the crime and indicated that he did it alone. Based upon this DNA evidence and the confession of Eldred Johnson, Claimant’s conviction was overturned and, on May 16, 2006, Claimant was released from prison.

In his claim, filed on February 13, 2008, Claimant alleges a cause of action for unjust conviction under Court of Claims Act (“CCA”) § 8-b. According to Claimant, he was coerced into giving the confession by members of the Rochester Police Department (“RPD”). He alleges that the DNA evidence and the confession of Eldred Johnson demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that he was innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted. More than this, Claimant argues that this exculpatory evidence demonstrates that his confession was coerced by members of the RPD. He seeks $10,000,000.00 to compensate him for the more than nine years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit.

With this motion, filed in lieu of an Answer, Defendant seeks dismissal of the claim, arguing that Claimant cannot meet the statutory requirements necessary to support such a claim. Court of Claims Act § 8-b[4] provides:
“The claim shall state facts in sufficient detail to permit the court to find that claimant is likely to succeed at trial in proving that (a) he did not commit any of the acts charged in the accusatory instrument . . . and (b) he did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction.”
It is this latter provision that is at issue here. Specifically, Defendant alleges that through his confession, as well as other actions, Claimant caused or brought about his own conviction. Accordingly, Defendant argues that, because Claimant cannot demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that he did not cause or bring about his conviction, he is barred from recovery under the statute, and the claim should be dismissed.

Claimant’s counsel has pointed out that “there is no [pleading] requirement that claimants attach documentary proof that they did not cause or bring about their convictions” (Claimant’s brief in opposition, par. 13). While technically true, it is equally true that, under the statute, a court should dismiss the action if it finds that a claimant is not likely to succeed at trial in proving by clear and convincing evidence that he did not cause or bring about his conviction (Mike v State of New York, 11 Misc 3d 384; Ausderau v State of New York, 130 Misc 2d 848). Accordingly, Defendant correctly argues that Mr. Warney’s claim should be dismissed if it appears that he will be unable to meet this burden.

At first blush, of course, the answer to this question seems obvious. Claimant gave a specific and detailed written confession to the crime. There is no doubt that this confession contributed to Claimant’s conviction. Claimant argues, however, that because his confession contained information that Claimant could not possibly have known, his confession was obviously the product of misconduct and coercion on the part of the police officers that secured it. Therefore, Claimant argues, because the confession was not voluntary, it cannot be used by Defendant to demonstrate that Claimant caused or contributed to his own conviction. Following this line of reasoning, Claimant argues that the confession was the centerpiece of the prosecution against Claimant and, as the confession fails because it was coerced, so does any evidence that Claimant caused or contributed to his own conviction.

To counter this argument, Defendant argues that the confession was tested at a Huntley hearing prior to Claimant’s criminal trial, and that Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Harold L. Galloway determined specifically that the confession was not coerced. More than this, however, Defendant points out that the voluntariness of the confession was tested again after the trial, first at the Supreme Court level with Justice Donald J. Mark (Ramsay Affirmation, dated March 13, 2008, Exhibit C) and then at the Appellate Division, Fourth Department (People v Warney, 299 AD2d 956). Defendant argues that, because the Appellate Division determined that the State had demonstrated that the confession was voluntary by clear and convincing evidence, Claimant cannot possibly demonstrate that it was involuntary by the same standard.

A similar situation occurred in Duval v State of New York (Ct Cl, October 4, 2002 [Claim No. 105548, Motion Nos. M-64867, M-65282, CM-65283], Patti, J., UID No. 2002-013-034). In Duval, the claimant argued that he should be permitted to demonstrate that he did not cause or contribute to his own conviction by testing the voluntariness of his confession in the Court of Claims. That confession had been determined to be voluntary in both a pretrial Huntley hearing and a post-trial habeas corpus proceeding in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York. Judge Patti denied Claimant’s request, stating: “In the circumstances presented here, the voluntariness of Claimant’s confession is not something that this Court has the power to determine anew” (Duval v State of New York, supra). Claimant finds an apparent contradiction between Judge Patti’s determination in Duval and a subsequent decision of the Hon. S. Michael Nadel in Cortes v State of New York (Ct Cl, April 15, 2005 [Claim No. 108167], UID No. 2005-014-002). However, that case did not involve a post-trial determination on the voluntariness of the confession. Judge Nadel merely noted the clearly established fact that the finder of fact is not bound by a pretrial Huntley hearing determination.

I find that, although Claimant has presented evidence clearly demonstrating that his confession was false, the evidence presented does not also indicate that it was coerced. Although Claimant alleges that only the police and the true perpetrator could have known many of the factual details contained in the confession, I am not convinced. First, I note that, prior to being exonerated by the DNA evidence and the confession of Eldred Johnson, Claimant consistently argued that the confession was obviously false because his descriptions of the specifics concerning the crime were too inconsistent with what police knew actually happened. Now, Claimant argues that the information was so specific and exact that only the true murderer and the police could have known it. Second, Claimant had been to the victim’s house on previous occasions and was familiar with the victim. He may have been there on the day of the murder. It is, therefore, not surprising that, even though Claimant did not commit the murder, he was able to provide details that the general public would not know.

Apart from pointing to the nature of the information contained in the confession, Claimant does not indicate how he was coerced by police to give a false confession. Moreover, Claimant argues that it was misconduct by the two interrogating officers, Investigator Evelyn Beaudrault and Sergeant John Gropp, that resulted in the false confession and Claimant’s conviction. Claimant’s theory is not that tidy, however, as it does not account for other damaging statements Claimant made to other members of the RPD.

It should be noted that Claimant’s contact with the RPD was initiated by Claimant, who was attempting to frame someone else for the murder. Officer Sandra Adams testified at trial that she interviewed Claimant in his own home on January 4, 1996. She described Claimant as very cooperative. At the time of the interview, she was unaware of the nature of the information Claimant wanted to give her, but knew that he had been a reliable source of information in the past. She testified how Claimant falsely tried to implicate his cousin Bryan Szymkowski in the crime. Mr. Warney also told Officer Adams that the victim had been cooking on the day he was murdered. This information was provided by Claimant before Officer Adams even knew what crime or what victim he was talking about and before Claimant’s allegedly coercive interrogation by Beaudrault and Gropp.

Moreover, Claimant’s spontaneous statement to Police Corporal Dennis Dreeson that “I’ve got a body” was presented to the jury. Several witnesses at the trial testified that, in their experience, that phrase was street slang meaning that Claimant had murdered someone. Therefore, the jury could have reasonably inferred that Claimant was, again, confessing to the crime. To suggest that the information Officer Adams provided and the spontaneous statement Corporal Dreeson heard was fabricated, stretches the bounds of credulity. It would mean that, in addition to the alleged improper interrogation tactics, the RPD was also involved in a much larger conspiracy to frame Mr. Warney. And this conspiracy included not just the two officers investigating the murder, but also Officer Adams and Corporal Dreeson.

Court of Claims Act § 8-b was created to prevent injustice by carving out a way for a person with clean hands to recover for the injustice of his or her false imprisonment. The statute was not designed to permit one to benefit from his own improper actions. As the Law Revision Commission stated in its report to the legislature when it proposed the statute, it is important to “ensure that one is not rewarded for his own misconduct” (McKinney’s 1984 Session Laws of New York at p. 2932). The statute offers a list of examples of conduct that would prevent a claimant from recovering for unjust conviction. These include: 1) falsely giving an uncoerced confession; 2) inducing a witness to give false testimony; and 3) concealing the guilt of another person. While Claimant argues he fits into none of these categories, I note that the list is not meant to be exhaustive. I find that by his own actions, which included calling the police to tell them he had information about the murder, trying to frame an innocent man for the crime, and in volunteering that he had “a body” to Corporal Dreeson, Claimant did cause or bring about his own conviction. In Moses v State of New York (137 Misc 2d 1081, 1086), the Hon. Gerard M. Weisberg stated “[W]here a claimant through misconduct has incited another to false accusations of murder are his hands clean enough to reach into the public till for recompense. We think not.” Here, Claimant himself made false allegations of murder against his cousin. His hands were, therefore, no less dirty than those of Mr. Moses.

For the reasons stated above, I find that it does not appear that Claimant can meet the stringent statutory requirements necessary to recover under Court of Claims Act § 8-b.

Accordingly, it is hereby

ORDERED, that Defendant’s motion for dismissal of the claim is granted. The claim is dismissed in its entirety.

September 26, 2008
Rochester, New York

HON. RENÉE FORGENSI MINARIK
Judge of the Court of Claims